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from the March 2011 issue

Noor Jehan

I think I first saw Noor Jehan in the film Khandan. They called her Baby in those days, but believe me when I say that she didn't look like a baby. On the contrary, her body had every feature that a young girl could possibly need.

In those days Noor Jehan used to create mischief and unrest in the film-going public. It wasn't about her face or her body. It was simply her voice that caused such a commotion. After Sehgal, Noor Jehan was the singer who really impressed me. She had such a pure voice, with such clear tone. I've always thought that if the girl wanted to she could hold a single note for hours, like an acrobat who stands on a tightrope without slipping.

Noor Jehan's voice no longer has the sweet, youthful quality that once distinguished it. But Noor Jehan remains Noor Jehan. These days Lata Mangeshkar's magical voice is famous everywhere. But you simply can't ignore Noor Jehan. Even if she strikes only a single note, you have to pay attention. […] 

You hear a lot of gossip about Noor Jehan, some of which may even be true. But I know this much: She's the mother of two wonderful sons who study in the stately confines of Aitchison Chiefs College in Lahore. Noor Jehan is devoted to them. Recently there was a festival at the Chiefs College in which all the children took part. Part of the show was a dance performance of the story of Radha and Krishna. Noor Jehan's older son played a milkmaid. He looked quite fetching in girl's clothes, and his dancing was excellent as well.

Noor Jehan certainly knows how to dance. I don't know whether she trained her boy Akbar in dance or if the talent is simply in his blood. In any case, we'll have to see what becomes of Akbar and his brother Asghar after they leave school. Will their family become a theatrical dynasty like the Barrymores or the Kapoors? At this point it's hard to say.

Noor Jehan has an arrogant streak. If this arrogance is justified, it's on account of her luminous voice, not her physical beauty. She certainly has a right to be proud of her voice, although it's never good to be arrogant.

Once when we were living in Bombay my wife brought up the subject of Noor Jehan. "She's been to our house so many times," she said. "But she never comes around anymore, and so many of my girlfriends want to meet her!"

"She can certainly visit us," I replied. "She can visit us not once, but a thousand times." So I asked her husband, Shaukat Hussein Rizvi, and Shaukat sent her over a couple of days later.

I've known many famous actresses in my day, but none of them put on airs like Noor Jehan. Her carriage, her smile, her laugh, her temperament: Everything about her is stilted. I don't know how Noor Jehan got that way. I've often wondered if her married life with Shaukat was equally artificial? I don't think so.

Anyway, Noor Jehan arrived at our place and greeted everyone in a very friendly but rather artificial manner. I thought I should leave the women alone so that they might talk freely, but one of my wife's girlfriends asked if I would stay and persuade Noor Jehan to sing. So without much ceremony I told Noor Jehan that the guests wanted to hear her sing a couple of songs.

Noor Jehan replied quite formally: "No. Manto Sahib, I can't do it. My throat is not in good shape." Instantly I heated up like a kebab. I knew she was putting on an act, and that there was nothing wrong with her throat. She had a steel throat that could never be damaged.

"Noor Jehan, that excuse won't wash here," I said. "You'll simply have to sing. I've heard you perform a thousand times, but these people are longing to hear you. So you should sing no matter what shape your throat is in."

A lot of urging and resistance ensued. Finally my wife said, "Leave it already. She doesn't want to sing, so why are you insisting?" But I can be stubborn too, so I kept after Noor Jehan until finally she started singing a ghazal by the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz: "Aaj ki raat saaz-e-dard na chher" [Don't pluck the strings of pain tonight]. Even now, after all these years, I can still hear that honey-filled voice.

Noor Jehan has many admirers. I know several cooks who keep her picture over the stove and sing her songs aloud while they prepare food for their masters and mistresses. I also know household servants who don't like Nomi, Nargis, or Kamini Koshal, but are madly in love with Noor Jehan. Whenever they find one of her pictures they cut it out and stick it in their broken tin trunks so that they can warm their eyes by staring at it in their spare time. And they're prepared to fight anyone who criticizes Noor Jehan.

One of Noor Jehan's most ardent admirers lives in my house. Whenever he sees a pretty girl, a bride, or a woman in red, he calls her Noor Jehan. He knows practically all her songs by heart. He himself is very handsome, so I don't understand what he finds so entrancing about Noor Jehan that he has to sing her praises day and night.

This young man is very dear to me. He's the son of my nephew and sister-in-law. His name is Shahid Jalal, but we all affectionately call him Taku. We've all urged him to stop obsessing about Noor Jehan, saying, "Look, she's a married woman with children, you can't possibly marry her." But Taku persists in loving Noor Jehan.

Taku likes to watch films, but he gets upset if Noor Jehan isn't in them. He starts singing her songs again when he gets home, and he tells his mother and father that he wants only Noor Jehan, no one else.

Recently Taku's grandfather Mian Jalaluddin visited Shaukat Rizvi and said: "Look, your wife has an admirer who is besotted with her. God forbid he should run off with her one of these days!"

Shaukat seemed quite disturbed by this news from the aforementioned Mian Sahib. Finally he asked, "Mian Sahib, who is this person?"

Smiling, Mian Sahib replied: "He's my grandson."

"Your grandson? How old is he?"

"Oh, about four years old," answered Mian Sahib.

Noor Jehan was delighted when she heard this story. She declared that she would fly to her lover's side and marry him at once! Shahid Jalal was very happy when we told him, and waited impatiently for the day when Noor Jehan would become his bride.

Not long ago I heard a story about another of Noor Jehan's admirers. This one was no four-year-old, but a charming young man who worked as a barber. He was constantly singing her songs and reciting lines from her films. Once someone asked him, "Are you really in love with Noor Jehan?"

The barber replied with great sincerity: "Can there be any doubt of that?" His friend decided to put him to the test by asking: "If you're truly in love, then are you willing to imitate the great Punjabi lover Mahinwal by cutting a piece of flesh from your body, cooking it as a kebab, and sending it to her?"

The barber pulled out a sharpened razor, placed it in his friend's hand, and said, "Cut out any piece of my flesh that you like." I can't imagine what sort of man would do this, but the barber's friend slashed a piece of flesh from his arm and then ran off while the barber passed out from loss of blood.

When the barber woke up in Mayo Hospital, the first words that passed his lips were "Noor Jehan."

These days there's a court case against Noor Jehan here in Lahore. She is accused of beating up a young actress named Nighat Sultana. According to the charges, Noor Jehan scratched Nighat's face and really knocked her around. I don't want to say too much about this matter because it's before the court and I don't want to be held in contempt.

But I can't understand why Noor Jehan thought it necessary to assault this Nighat Sultana. To tell the truth, I'd never heard of Nighat Sultana before I heard the news of her fight with Noor Jehan. I've no idea when or how she became an actress, although I hear that she came from Dhakka. Anyway, we'll see how the case turns out.

Noor Jehan's handsome husband, Shaukat Hussein Rizvi, is still around, and so are her lovely children. She's a mother, and for her sake a Lahori barber was willing to give a chunk of his flesh. She has a four-year-old admirer named Shahid Jalal, alias Taku, who dreams constantly of making her his bride. And there are cooks who keep her picture near the stove while they prepare food, and forget their troubles by singing her songs in their broken voices when it's time to wash the dishes.

And then there's me.

Translation of "Noor Jehan," from Manto-Nama (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 1999). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2011 by Richard McGill Murphy. All rights reserved.

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